I’ll admit it: there was a time, not all that many years ago, when I was scornful of my fellow Americans who wore the shirts of foreign soccer teams. I saw them as pretentious hipsters who, on other days, would be just as likely to wear a T-shirt from a band you’ve never heard of, hoping you will be clueless enough to ask, “Who’s that?” I know you can’t tell someone is American just by looking at him—well, not always—and I know there are plenty of Americans with hereditary ties to certain teams. But how does an otherwise unaffiliated Yank with no particular history just have the balls to pick a team and declare to the world: I am a fan. I follow this team. If you cut me, I will bleed (let’s say, for example) claret and blue.
(For those too impatient to read to the end of this admittedly overlong post, I’ll just say this now: I think I look very comfortable in my 2013-14 Aston Villa home shirt. Even if my wife thinks I look like a dork.)
I grew up not knowing much about team sports, much less being a fan of team sports. I was a child of the 1970s, and my father, an English teacher with curly red hair and wild eyebrows, followed tennis and running. I was a fan, as much as I child could be, of Bjorn Borg and Arthur Ashe. I knew my father despised Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe (and so I did, too, even though I found them fascinating). I knew how to pronounce Vitas Gerulaitis. I was also familiar with the names Sebastian Coe, Frank Shorter, and, later, Alberto Salazar.
This didn’t seem in any way odd to me. I grew up in Montana, a state with no major-league teams, and, at the time, no history of success in college sports. (Times have changed: Go Griz!) I do remember some playground debates as to who played better football, the Vikings, the Steelers, the Raiders, the Dallas Cowboys. And, although I even briefly owned an Oakland Raiders jacket—because I thought the silver and black made me look tough—my credibility as a football fan was undermined by the fact that I had never seen my team play. Football wasn’t watched in my house.
(This reminds me of another playground debate in which, desperate to sound knowledgeable when asked which radio station was the coolest, I named a station based wholly on its call letters: KYSS. After all, KISS was a frightening rock band, right? So wouldn’t KYSS play bad-ass music? Alas, no: “That figures,” sniffed a girl. “I knew you’d like country.” The only radio station heard in my house was KUFM, the local NPR affiliate.)
Years later, as an adult in Chicago, I found myself a neutral observer in many conversations about college sports (how could they possibly have so many colleges and universities east of the Mississippi?), and, naturally, I met a lot of adults who had grown up in places like Pittsburgh, and so had a ready-made slate of teams to support: the Steelers (how nice for them), the Pirates (oh, the pity), and the Penguins (well, they could do worse).
That’s how I had always thought of fandom. Love of a team, if not inherited from your parents, was geographic. And that made sense: if sports are the socially acceptable form of violence, civilized society’s form of battle, then of course we should root for our local teams. Why urge the enemy to attack us? We’re too busy with families, jobs, and bills to go wage actual war on, say, Boston, so we send a delegation of athletes instead. And, because bringing back human trophies is just rude (and where do you put them? does IKEA offer something?), let’s just have Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and the rest of the guys bring back something shiny.
As a determiner of fandom, geography has its limits, of course. Maybe you just don’t want to root for your crummy local team. And, while allegiance to the local athletic enterprise can offer an illuminating sense of shared purpose—or, conversely, illumination from the light of burning cars torched after an important win or loss—it’s pretty generic. I, by virtue of living in a large city with a popular, well-managed team, have earned the right to feel superior to you, the loser, because you dwell in a smaller city and support a team riven by ego and mismanagement. So maybe choice has its virtues, after all.
But I digress. Again. Sorry, but this whole post is going to be one long digression. Villa isn’t playing a meaningful game this week (you weren’t seriously worried about Rotherham, were you?) so I’m taking the time to work some things out.
Anyway, I moved to Chicago and bought into the whole geographic thing. Delighted that I could step out my back door and ride to Wrigley Field on the 22 bus, I became a Cubs fan. (Somebody should have warned me about that, but there you have it—it’s too late now.) When the North Side of Chicago was happy, I was happy. This didn’t last long. When the North Side of Chicago was unhappy, which is the more usual state of things, and why they anesthetize themselves with beer, I had plenty of people with whom to commiserate.
But then I started playing soccer. My cousin Shane, a player and a fan, moved to Chicago and we decided it would be fun to organize a pickup game. We dubbed it the “Bulgarian Football League,” in honor of the legendary Hristo Stoitchkov, then playing with the Chicago Fire, even though there was nothing Bulgarian about our game whatsoever. In a word, we were soft. But we had fun. And we even managed to get an actual Bulgarian to show up, although I think she felt utterly cheated. She was expecting real Bulgarians.
I loved the game and felt that I would have had an excellent chance at being half decent at it, if only I’d been introduced to it twenty years earlier. I loved playing so much that, like our actual Bulgarian, I felt cheated—out of all those years in which I could have been playing.
But, having played a bit, the game began to make more sense to me as a fan. I had watched several World Cups without understanding much more than which was ahead at any given moment. Now I went to Fire games at Soldier Field, and watched them on TV, and then, gradually, as the games became more available on cable, began to watch European soccer. Mainly the Premier League. Where the game was played at a completely different level than it was in the U.S.
I was hooked.
I watched aimlessly for a couple of seasons, just looking for good games. I developed some favorite players, but I didn’t have a team to root for. I began to envy the fans in the stands, whose ecstasy and anguish was obviously so much more fully felt than my casual interest.
I stopped making fun of the guys who wore their team’s shirt around Chicago. Now I envied them and wished I had a team of my own to support. But how do you just . . . choose? Choosing a team struck me as somehow arrogant, like appropriating history and culture and years of joy and pain and agony just by saying, “I’m in!” How dare I? How dare anyone? Surely you have to earn the right to wear the shirt, but how do you do that? Let’s face it, despite all the amazing scientific advances of recent years, there’s just still no way to fit generations of team spirit into an afternoon.
But surely all these other guys weren’t suffering the same paralysis of overanalysis that I was. Screw it, I decided. I’m picking a team.
To my wife, I rationalized the choice thusly: “If I just choose one team, then I won’t be watching so much soccer every weekend. And I’ll still get to see all the other teams in the league play, anyway.”
Who knows? I might even have believed that first sentence.
So who to choose? How to choose? I instantly ruled out Manchester United, Liverpool, and Chelsea. Choosing one of those sides, I reasoned, would be like deciding to become a baseball fan and picking the New York Yankees. Too obvious. And, moreover, when you choose a club with high expectations and a history of success, what do you root for? Yay, we won the league again! Really, there’s nowhere to go but down. Moreover, how can you feel a part of success that’s already been earned? I had half a notion that I could earn my right to be a fan if I was along for the ride up, or down, and hadn’t come on board at the very top.
I was interested in Arsenal, for sure. I’d read Nick Hornby’s book, of course, and they played attractive soccer. Moreover, they were a London club, which held some appeal because I lived there briefly after college and thought I might be more likely to visit there than, say, Wigan. But I ruled them out, too. Too big, too successful, and I didn’t want to look like the bespectacled git who chose a team because of some book he read. And, frankly, they seemed too popular around Chicago.
The teams hovering around the relegation zone—your Reading, your Birmingham City, your Hull—I also ruled out. If I couldn’t watch them on TV, what would be the point of following them? I gave every team consideration, but there were many that didn’t produce a flicker of feeling: your Bolton, your Sunderland, your Blackburn. (Well, I almost felt something for Blackburn.)
What I wanted was a middle-of-the-table team with a rich history, an exciting style, and the promise of future success. I wanted to be along for the ride up. A cool name and decent-looking kit would be a bonus. Teams that, at the time, met at least some of those criteria included Tottenham Hotspur (cool name, London club) and West Ham (slightly Gatsbyesque name, London club, nice colors).
I briefly considered Portsmouth, having read about their amazing rise in the great book Bloody Confused, by Chuck Culpepper. So, so, so glad I didn’t climb on that wagon. I had no idea about the finances involved or the utter unlikeliness of their meteoric climb.
I will confess, too, that there was another factor involved. I found myself wanting to support a team that wasn’t well known or widely supported in the U.S. . . . just like the very hipsters I once despised. Knowledge of the obscure makes it easier to own your subject, I guess. I considered teams that historically came second in their cities, like Everton and Manchester City. Everton had Tim Howard, a big plus, and I liked David Moyes. And City were about to buy a bunch of players, including some I cared about, but at the time I didn’t think they had any personality. (Come to think of it, I still don’t, personality being the one thing you can’t buy.) Newcastle crossed my mind and kept right on going. Fulham, a small club, had Brian McBride and Clint Dempsey, and I loved the idea of making a pilgrimage to Craven Cottage.
But none of those teams felt quite right, for reasons I can’t explain. I’ve since heard it said that you don’t choose your team, they choose you. And so it was. In the end, the answer was right in front of me. There was a massive club in England’s second city, with an enigmatic name and great colors, who were making an assault on the top half of the table under the direction of a fiercely competitive Irishman named Martin O’Neill. I liked their players—Gabby Agbonlahor and John Carew, Ashley Young and Gareth Barry, Stan Petrov and Martin Laursen—and I liked their chances. I liked that they didn’t have buckets of money and so would have to be smart about transfers and player development (though I liked that they weren’t exactly broke, either). Villa would have to punch above their weight if they were to be a top team, but, as one of the few teams not to be relegated from the Premiership, they seemed likely to be in the mix for years to come.
I don’t remember the moment I decided. With something that momentous, it seems as though there should be boozy toasts, or fireworks, or at least a match program and a ticket stub. And, to be honest, it took more than a few seasons before I stopped feeling like a fraud. I still feel like a fraud sometimes, to be honest.
But that doesn’t stop me from losing sleep when Villa are losing. That doesn’t stop me from spending too much time reading about injuries, transfers, and lineups. That doesn’t stop me from enjoying feeling like a part of it all, this team that plays thousands of miles away in a stadium I’ve yet to visit, a team I’ve only seen play in person once (Chicago Fire 0 – Aston Villa 1, headed goal by Agbonlahor at 28′).
My history with the team may be brief, but it’s underway. And it’s mine. And I’m working on my sons—who, at 7 and 9, are both at an age when choosing the New York Yankees seems the perfectly sensible thing to do.
And I think I look pretty good in the shirt.